A librarian friend shoved this into my hands when I mention enjoying science fiction, and to be honest I was a bit dubious – I’d never heard of Beckett, for a start. Anyway, I started reading it last night and… I couldn’t put it down. Quite seriously. I read it in one hit. Now, it’s YA, and it’s only 145 pages, but still – I considered going to sleep at one point, but I picked it right back up again and kept on reading. Totally addictive.
This review has some spoilers
In one sense, the book’s story happens over only five hours: the five hours of Anaximander’s examination to try and get into The Academy. Her special topic is the life of Adam Forde, on which she expects to get grilled by the three Examiners for the whole time. Her first surprise comes when they ask her about the early years of The Republic, and she has to scrabble for her memory of history. Then they finally come to Adam, and the formative moments of his life, and she is comfortable in what she knows – although she also knows that some of her theories are controversial. Things do not, of course, proceed exactly as she had anticipated…
On another level, the examination is a clever way of recounting a fairly large whack of the book’s immediate history, without it feeling overwhelmingly like an info-dump, and weaving a story through those events. Anax and her Examiners, it is revealed, live in almost a post-apocalyptic world. The setting, New Zealand, is apparently the only place to have survived a dreadful war and subsequent plagues, all thanks to a far-seeing and eventually quite ruthless business man, Plato. He insisted on NZ’s quarantine, enforced by a great sea fence. The society which eventually developed – or was designed – centres on people’s usefulness to society, and their talents as determined by genetic testing. Adam Forde had been tested as being a Philosopher – the highest grade possible. But when he acts against his training – allowing a refugee girl past the sea fence – things start to get out of control. And then he is asked to interact with an Artificial Intelligence, to help it learn.
On yet another level, of course, the book is a searching and illuminating examination of what it means to be human, what it means to construct a society and what things we are willing to give up to have a safe society, how important safety and comfort are and at what price they should be bought… you know, all the easy topics. It’s not done cavalierly; I am staggered by how much depth Beckett managed to cram into this little book.
Perhaps the most clever aspect of the book is that you could simply read the story, and it’s quite engaging. You could read it and understand some of what Beckett is discussing about society, and it’s riveting. And then, when you start understanding the classical allusions, things get really interesting: Anaximander was one of the earliest Greek philosophers, apparently teaching Pythagoras and getting all into the scientific mode of thought. Her teacher in the book is Pericles – he who led Athens during part of her Golden Age, fostering democracy, beginning the Parthenon, and involved with the war on Sparta. The society of The Republic (set up by Plato? this is one of the more blatant references, and perhaps it was done deliberately to trigger the classical connections) is a lot like Sparta, and like what the original Plato suggested too. This is a very, very clever set up – but not so clever as to be overwhelmed by smugness.
The conclusion is… well, I am still thinking about it. This is where it gets REALLY spoilery!
I began to guess at the twist when the Examiners were pushing Anax about the Final Dilemma, and the discussions between Art (the AI) and Adam. I realised there just had to be some great reveal coming up, and that Anax and the Examiners were actually descendants of Art simply made sense. It didn’t lessen the tension, though – and it in no way prepared me for Pericles’ actions in the very last paragraph. I can’t believe I managed to sleep after that; it was, truly, gut-wrenching. Also, having finally looked carefully at the front cover (above), I am saddened: there wouldn’t be nearly as much of a surprise if you noticed before reading that those are orang utan hands.
This is a magnificent book, and I can’t believe I had never heard about it. I think I may have to try and buy it so I can shove it into other, unsuspecting hands.